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Vision for Cascadia bullet trains obscured by budget uncertainties

Proponents wait to see where high-speed rail fits in U.S. President Biden’s ambitions to ‘Build back Better’

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The futuristic vision of bullet trains shooting down a corridor from Vancouver through Seattle to Portland, supercharging the Cascadia region’s tech sector, is still being sketched out, despite the intrusion of a global pandemic.

Washington state’s Department of Transportation produced a “Framework for the Future” last year that lays out a path to move the US$42-billion proposal off paper into a more real form, which Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking support from his state’s budget to advance.

“Make no mistake, this is a decades-long exercise,” said Greg D’Avignon, CEO of the Business Council of B.C., but he argued that the planning at least should continue to advance, considering the potential for the cross-border corridor to grow into a mega-region of more than 12 million people.

A map of a potential Cascadia high speed rail corridor linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland by 350-kph bullet trains, produced by the non-profit advocacy group Cascadia Rail.
A map of a potential Cascadia high speed rail corridor linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland by 350-kph bullet trains, produced by the non-profit advocacy group Cascadia Rail. PNG

D’Avignon co-chairs the Cascadia Innovation Corridor think-tank, along with former Wash. governor Christine Gregoire, which promotes a cooperative effort to promoting economic growth and meeting objectives for environmental sustainability and quality of life.

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“Fundamental to that is smart infrastructure to be enable all of those things to happen,” he said.

That includes dealing with how to move people efficiently along the corridor, which is where a 350-kmh bullet train, capable of zipping from Vancouver to Seattle in an hour, comes in.

However, the view for Cascadia high-speed rail is foggier when it comes to where the ultra-high-speed rail corridor fits into U.S. President Joseph Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plans to “Build Back Better.”

The ambitious White House recovery plans don’t mention high-speed rail by name in their objectives  “to make a historic and overdue investment” in building world-class transportation infrastructure.

There is, however, a budget request for $80 billion for rail projects, including a grant and loan program to support passenger-rail safety and electrification, which gives Cascadia rail advocate Paige Malott some hope.

“What we’re looking for is for Washington state and the Cascadia project to continue to make its local investments, like it’s been doing since 2018,” said Malott, chairwoman of the non-profit support group Cascadia Rail.

And Malott also holds hope in  the American High Speed Rail Act, a bill before the U.S. House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Washington Congresswoman Suzan Delbene,  that contemplates spending $205 billion on 34 projects, including Cascadia.

“Of course $205 billion over 30 some projects is going to not finance all of them fully, but it will definitely give them a good start and a way to get set up for success,” Malott said.

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Washington state’s Department of Transportation estimates that building the Cascadia corridor would be a 10- to 15-year process, depending on how quickly governments and organizations started on its steps.

The Framework for the Future report, released in December, is the latest preliminary report on the proposal following from a 2019 business case and 2017 feasibility study that identified a potential $355 billion payoff in increased economic development along the cross-border corridor.

“I definitely think there’s momentum here,” said Malott. “It’s really a win-win for our region to build a project that is going to address a lot of our large-scale problems,” including reducing carbon emissions and improving mobility within the region.

However, that American High Speed Rail act represents the reintroduction of legislation proposed in 2020 that didn’t advance. And even Biden’s $80 billion ask for rail projects still has to clear the U.S. Congress before Cascadia could even compete for some of the dollars.

Washington’s Inslee has asked for $3.25 million to be put in the state’s 2021 budget to establish a coordinating agency with Oregon and B.C. to begin public consultations about routes and integrating high-speed rail with regional transportation plans.

“This funding is critical to continue the work with our partners,” according to the governor’s budget-priorities document.

Funding for the request, however, didn’t make it into the state budget or the transportation priorities plans for each of the state’s legislative bodies, according to a staff member for the senate Democratic caucus.

There is, however, a joint transportation committee study that set aside $400,000 to evaluate options for building better connections along the corridor from Portland to Vancouver, including high-speed rail.

The committee expects that assessment to update long-range plans, with cost-benefit analysis for each option, with a report due in the legislature by Dec. 1, 2022.

depenner@postmedia.com

twitter.com/derrickpenner

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